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Why TikTokers are drinking laundry detergent

Author: Editors Desk Source: Vox
July 31, 2023 at 19:30
Paige Vickers / Vox
Paige Vickers / Vox
The borax challenge is spreading to Facebook now, too.

Disclaimer: This article is for informational purposes only; the writers are not recommending drinking Borax. Just don’t.

The video has all the emblems of someone sharing their recipe for a nutritious smoothie: ingredients laid out on the counter, captions touting their health benefits. But Leah Anduiza, who posts on TikTok as @thetruthaboutparasites, is not telling her 47,000 followers to add a little spinach to a fruit smoothie for an extra boost of iron. Instead, she’s making a solution of borax and water, a concoction she says she drinks daily with her morning coffee.

Borax is a chemical compound containing boron that’s sold as a laundry detergent or cleaning agent. Ingesting it can cause vomiting and diarrhea. Drinking it or bathing in it can cause skin rashes. Take borax for long enough and you could end up with anemia, according to the National Capital Poison Center. But in several online enclaves, borax is one of many dubious substances in the medicine cabinet of misinformation, touted as a cure for everything from arthritis to cancer. Drinking borax is not a new phenomenon. But on TikTok, it became a trend.

The #boraxchallenge has more than 34 million views and counting on TikTok. Click on the hashtag and it’s not difficult to find videos of people sharing their “journey” of ingesting laundry detergent. And if you spend enough time looking at these videos, TikTok will feed you even more. 

“I simply add it to my lemon water every morning,” one TikTok user says in a video with 20,000 views, as she showed herself squeezing lemon juice into a bright green cup as cheerful music plays in the background. “Just a pinch or two a day.” Todd Mendlesohn, a former bodybuilder with 25,000 followers on TikTok, promised his audience that a “pre-workout” drink of borax, baking soda, and Celtic sea salt would give them “the biggest pump on the planet.” That video has more than 150,000 views. 

These kinds of popular health-adjacent TikTok videos tend to be imbued with a sense of accessibility. If the person showing their recipe for a health drink says it made them feel better, maybe it’ll also work for you. That sentiment can swiftly lead to dangerous trends, in which the individual videos shake off the context in which they were created, bursting in and out of view with a quickness that avoids deep examination. And this is exactly why health misinformation works so well on TikTok. But as the platform’s collective attention moves on to the next trend, real people can still get hurt. 

Melissa, who posts on TikTok as @athenavondusseldorf and declined to give her full name out of concerns about harassment, was hopeful when she saw a TikTok video recommending borax water. “I’m in a desperate amount of pain and I have been jumping through hoops with doctors for 8 years trying to get some relief,” she said in a DM, explaining that she’s been diagnosed with a painful spinal condition. A TikTok video — she can’t remember which one she saw first — prompted her to do more research. She found a YouTube video of a woman who replaced her toothpaste with borax. Google results led her to an article on the NIH website about the potential benefits of boron supplements. She bought some borax and mixed a teaspoon into her water bottle — a dosage she settled on after watching how much TikTokers were adding to their concoctions. She drank borax water for two days before posting her own TikTok video about the experience that’s titled “I poisoned myself.” 

“I had to call out of work. I was throwing up. I had such a headache that I felt like my brain was swelling,” Melissa said in the video. She knew better, she said. Her instincts were telling her that drinking laundry detergent was a bad idea. But she was in a lot of pain, her doctors weren’t helping, and it seemed like so many other people had tried borax with great results. 

The latest dangerous internet challenge

Some people are calling the borax challenge “the Tide Pod challenge for boomers,” referencing the 2018 moral panic about teens filming themselves eating Tide Pods for social media clout. There’s a delicious irony in this framing: While the panic about the Tide Pod challenge vastly outpaced the rather limited popularity of the so-called trend among actual teens at the time, it’s easy to establish that a bunch of adults really are filming themselves preparing and drinking borax. But upon closer examination, the comparison has deeper cracks: Enterprising internet users are actually trying to monetize the borax challenge. 

The borax challenge is part of a cottage industry of health misinformation that extends beyond TikTok. But thanks to TikTok’s trend culture, the people making money by pushing these dangerous tips and treatments are finding a new audience that’s ultimately being directed to an established network of snake oil salespeople and miracle cure peddlers spread across the internet. 

Misinformation also benefits from the cycle of a controversial social media trend. First, the idea gains attention, and as the trend spreads, its dubious claims draw outrage that leads to video removals. Eventually, the platform cracks down, which simply emboldens the trend’s loyal followers with the idea that “they” are trying to censor the truth. 

It’s tricky to track the impact of trends like this, said Rachel Moran, who studies health misinformation as a postdoc scholar at the University of Washington. “Especially when the trend involves ingesting a substance that is typically thought of as toxic, it’s unclear how many people who show interest online will actually perform the behavior offline,” she said. “People may be more inclined to try drinking borax if they can post about it online and go viral, but similarly the everyday non-posting user watching the video may see it as a trend fit only for (wannabe) influencers.”

As people saw — and researched — the practice of drinking borax, they stumbled into an existing network that had been promoting the practice for years. On Facebook, there’s a private group with more than 40,000 members devoted to ingesting or bathing in borax. Recent posts are filled with requests for advice on dosage from people who want to start drinking borax after seeing it online. Some of those who have started their borax “journey” even ask for help dealing with the fallout.

“I have an awful aftertaste, and my mouth is dry,” wrote one user after drinking borax for the first time. Others asked for advice, including dosage, for giving borax to their children and their pets. In another recent post, an anonymous member asked for advice after their mother soaked in borax water. “She’s been throwing up since 2:00am,” the anonymous poster wrote. She was not drinking water. “I’m worried cause she’s almost 86 ...” Someone replied, “She’s detoxing. That’s good.” An administrator for the group declined to answer questions. 

TikTok told Vox that it didn’t believe drinking borax was a trend on their platform and that the majority of videos posted on the topic were by people trying to debunk it. Many of the most popular videos promoting borax consumption have since been removed, either by the creator of the video or by TikTok moderators. Many of the removals seem to coincide with increasedmedia attention to the phenomenon at the end of last week, as popular TikTok creators called out and condemned the presence of these videos on the app. TikTok’s community guidelines ban videos that promote dangerous practices, including viral challenges. 

Anduiza, the influencer who helped kick-start the borax trend on TikTok several months ago, has paused posting about borax on her TikTok account, and her popular borax recipe video was removed by TikTok for violating their misinformation rules. And yet, she has since been using her social media presence to funnel people to other platforms. Her personal website advertises free and paid advice on undergoing a “parasite detox” that includes ingesting borax, and directs people to the products she sells, including a holistic wellness multi-level marketing scheme called Amare. She also steers people to her 6,000-member private Facebook group and to an Amazon page where she earns affiliate links when people buy the detox products she recommends, including borax. Anduiza did not return multiple requests for comment.

Why misinformation thrives on TikTok 

Personal anecdotes from those who “cured” themselves of the incurable have long been health misinformation’s most powerful currency. For years, these testimonials have been shared in private Facebook groups, cheerful Instagram posts, and slickly produced YouTube videos, in targeted advertisements and in Google results. But TikTok is an anecdote-amplifying machine. On TikTok, reaching a huge audience of well-meaning viewers can be as simple as telling a good story, backed by the right music and lighting.

To Casey Fiesler, an associate professor at the University of Colorado who studies online communities, the borax challenge videos were reminiscent of viral TikTok recipes. Instead of dropping a block of feta in a pan and roasting it with tomatoes, however, they’re romanticizing drinking borax as part of a wellness lifestyle. And as those videos find an audience, they become embedded in the structure of TikTok’s algorithmic incentives to keep engaging with content. Once it’s embedded, the pathways toward misinformation multiply.

One video with nearly 2 million views, posted in June and still available on TikTok, claims to unveil the “borax conspiracy” by rehashing the arguments of a 2012 article by the same name that claims “Big Pharma” is covering up the benefits of drinking borax. At the top of the video, TikTok has displayed a suggested search for “Borax health benefits” that led to a river of videos promoting the benefits of ingesting borax. TikTok’s search results have also included a list of related search terms “benefits of borax for dogs,” “can dogs ingest borax for health benefits,” “borax benefits for arthritis,” “benefits of borax for men.”

“It fits the mold of what becomes popular on the platform: ‘alternative’ health advice that is cheap, accessible, and explained through a scientific-adjacent explanation that feels familiar,” said Moran, the misinformation expert. 

Not all of those trends are explicitly harmful. Things like the “sleepy girl mocktail” and the “internal shower” are mostly guilty of overstating the benefits of a food or supplement that is safe to eat, according to Moran. And as these topics spread to people outside of their intended audience, there’s often a counter trend of outrage that turns up the volume. 

“An interesting thing about TikTok is that the content that gets spread a lot isn’t necessarily the content that people like,” said Fiesler. “It gains a foothold with both the audience who agrees with it and wants to believe it, and the audience who doesn’t believe it and knows that it’s misinformation and wants to warn people.” 

What can be done about the challenge cycle? 

Addressing misinformation online generally is tricky. TikTok’s cultural swiftness certainly doesn’t help. “When these ‘new’ trends go viral, the conversation intensifies and then dissipates so quickly it’s hard for us to grasp how and when the information became important,” said Moran. Things go from “new” to deeply familiar so quickly that it’s hard to find room for even well-meaning audiences to question their veracity. While some of the most widely shared borax-drinking videos on TikTok were removed, new videos promoting the practice are still being posted and finding audiences. 

This is what Chem Thug, an account run by a chemistry PhD candidate and their wife, who asked to remain anonymous to avoid harassment, set out to address. In mid-July, they posted a supercut of TikTok creators enthusiastically undertaking the “borax challenge” as word of the trend spread. The compilation was intended to be shocking to their 175,000 followers and communicate that yes, people really are drinking borax. In fact, some people have been posting videos of themselves drinking borax on TikTok for months, or even years. Then, Chem Thug hops on camera to warn viewers against drinking laundry detergent. “Don’t eat shit out of the f-ing laundry box, people!” the video says before walking through a review of scientific literature on the dangers of ingesting borax. 

Chem Thug’s video quickly gained nearly 2 million views. 

“I am a firm believer in good faith at first,” Chem Thug said in an interview. “I try to find the kernel of truth from which sprouted all the lies, you know? I like to believe that if they’re given accurate information or as close to accurate information as possible, they’ll come to the logical conclusion.”

For a time, Chem Thug’s video was among the top results on TikTok for searches related to borax, which was part of the purpose of making it. Chem Thug knew the attention would die down eventually, but not the presence of this dangerous misinformation on TikTok. Months from now, they hope that someone searching for borax’s health benefits might see this video instead.

Then Chem Thug ran into a major obstacle to their work addressing TikTok’s misinformation trends: TikTok’s moderation practices. Just before their video hit 2 million views, the platform removed it for violating its rules, sending a message to the Chem Thug account that it flagged its content for promoting dangerous activities. TikTok restored the video six days later. 

The trend cycle had advanced. The dangerous borax challenge sparked outrage, which led to attention and media coverage and that ultimately drew action from TikTok’s moderators — which wasn’t always directed at the right users. Even without intervention by moderators, TikTok trends don’t last very long, and the borax challenge will fade away, just like almost everything else that bursts into popularity on the app. But soon something else will trend that is dangerous or misleading or nonsense, and the spotlight will turn in that direction.

The experience was frustrating for Chem Thug. “I’m out here trying to tell people how to not kill themselves,” they said. “You know what I mean?” 

Meanwhile, new members continued to flock to the Facebook group that promotes drinking borax. One recent post simply asks, “Is it safe to start taking borax while breastfeeding?” 

Then, that afternoon, the Facebook group was no longer available to view. When asked why, an administrator replied, they’d “decided to pause the group till all this TikTok stuff settles down.” 

Abby Ohlheiser is a freelance reporter and editor who writes about technology, religion, and culture. Their work has appeared previously on Vox and in the Washington Post, Mashable, the Revealer, the New Humanist, Slate, and the Columbia Journalism Review, among other places. They have an MA in religious studies and journalism from New York University and a book in the works on American evangelicalism and far-right media.

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